The overthrow of Premier Mossadeq
June 22, 2000 8:10 AM   Subscribe

The overthrow of Premier Mossadeq Last week the NYT posted PDF files of a CIA report detailing the overthrow of Premier Mossadeq of Iran in 1953. Names of Iranian participants who assisted in the operation were digitally "removed" because of fears that there families would face retribution when their status as foreign agents was revealed. John Young of cryptome discovered that the redacted text was not really gone -- by cancelling the PDF rendering at a certain point, the hidden names were revealed. He contacted the NYT and after some discussion told them he would not post the full files; the Times removed their copies of the files until they could edit out the names more securely. Young has since heard that other people also noticed the flawed redaction and has concluded that the information is therefore public. He is now posting the full text of the files (first installment up now) with the names restored. Is Young playing fast and loose with people's lives? Or does belief in a free press obligate this sort of thing?
posted by tingley (14 comments total)

He's playing fast and loose with people's lives. He was under no obligation to publish that information. He must be really detached from reality to have done such a thing.
posted by Calebos at 8:25 AM on June 22, 2000

Young sounds like he is basing his decision to publicize the names on the fact that other people are less ethical than him (i.e.: "If the flaw is known, then it's been exploited by someone.") Making this assumption about other people, he feels free to sink to their level. Why did he bother telling NYT about the flaw in the first place?
posted by rschram at 8:54 AM on June 22, 2000

If these were names of Americans living in America, I'd have less of a problem with him publishing the names. But they aren't American citizens, and therefore don't have the protection afforded by our law. Freedom of the press is not a law that exists in a vacuum, separate from the rest of our legal structure -- a structure of checks and balances that Iran doesn't have. (At least in terms of keeping the press honest. There, they just shut the presses down. A separate problem for a different time...)

Regardless, one has to ask what possible good could come of this, and why Young is doing it? This isn't about a leader cheating on his wife, these were people who likely did this because they thought it was the right thing. For that matter, the U.S. apparently thought it was the right thing too.

Finally, I thought Cryptome's purpose was to grant power to people against oppressive governments, not to give those governments more power over the people. This is just irresponsible.
posted by Ray at 9:50 AM on June 22, 2000

This thread--as with the one about UN censorship in the former Yugoslavia--reminds me of the Greek CIA Watch incident in the 1970s (for which I can't find a link. My apologies). CIA Watch, a leftist journal, published the names--obtained through public sources--of some people working for the CIA in Greece; one was killed by a bomb, and CIA Watch was shut down. It's a dillema (more so, of course, because I think the CIA and the Greek regime in the '70s are Bad People). What if someone discovered, say, the names of some people involved in terror incidents in Chile? What if they discovered the names of informers in Russia? What if they discovered the names of Israeli or Chinese spies living in America? If Cryptome is irresponsible for publishing this information, where is the line drawn for defining legitimate news that journalists should involve themselves?
posted by snarkout at 10:17 AM on June 22, 2000

Taking the devil's advocate position (ahem):

The people named in this article are accessories to an illegal overthrow of a government that resulted in decades of oppression, torture, and general U.S. wrongness. These are accomplices to some Very Bad Shit. These are not innocent people.

I believe it's this line of reasoning - the fact that these people are criminals - that is their justification for publishing the names.

That, and if they hadn't been tempted, they wouldn't have done it.

And, to be perfectly honest, I don't have a lot of sympathy for the CIA or their agents.
posted by solistrato at 10:56 AM on June 22, 2000

snarkout wrote: "What if someone discovered, say, the names of some people involved in terror incidents in Chile? What if they discovered the names of informers in Russia? What if they discovered the names of Israeli or Chinese spies living in America?"

If you had this information, and wanted to make good on it, you would try to get the information to the proper authorities for them to try to act on. If you were to make public the fact that such information existed, or the actual names themselves, then the chances of those people ever being brought to justice would be almost zero, since they would most probably disappear.

I would question how truly newsworthy this type of information (i.e. the names of individuals nithese situations) is. Maybe letting the public know that this information exists might be deemed news worthy by some, even if that act makes the information unactionable.

I'm not sure where the line should be drawn, and since I'm at work, can't give too much thought to it at this moment. I'm interested in hearing what others have to say.

posted by Calebos at 11:02 AM on June 22, 2000

Does anyone really think that this information was a secret until Cryptome revealed it? The Times botched this so badly that the names were visible on a slow computer. Somehow, I think it's possible that some of Iran's Web users might have slow computers too.
posted by rcade at 11:08 AM on June 22, 2000

Reading the description of just exactly how this text was "hidden", I think cryptome's assumption that the names could now be considered "available to the public" is a good one. Accusations of "playing fast and loose with people's lives" should be aimed at whatever incompetent NYT staffer bungled the redaction, not at cryptome.

posted by Mars Saxman at 11:16 AM on June 22, 2000

Think about this for a minute... How did the NYT get the files in the first place? If they got them from the Freedom of Information Act, that means that this information is accessible to pretty much anyone who has the time to research it and request it.

Now, if they came by these files via confidential informant or otherwise, then maybe they should have thought about not publishing the story in the first place. I don't think it is John Young's place to worry about playing fast and loose with people's lives, it was the New York Times who posted the information in the first place.
posted by da5id at 11:32 AM on June 22, 2000

Some digging on my lunch break has shown a few factual errors I made in my previous post. The journal that published the name of Richard Welch, the CIA station chief, was CounterSpy; it was run by Philip Agee, later denounced as a "reckless ideologue" by George Bush. Agee was reprinting information from a non-classified source, information apparently already known to the Greek terrorist group, 17 November (recently mentioned on MeFi), which killed him; and he was shot, not killed by a bomb.

Nonetheless, I think there are loose analogies to be drawn. The main question seem to be whether details about covert activities should be revealed if it might endanger people's lives. (I'm willing to say that the details of the CIA's overthrow of a third-world country's government and installation of a puppet regime remain newsworthy, even decades after the fact; you may not be.)
posted by snarkout at 12:07 PM on June 22, 2000

What if Cryptomes publishing it, names bare, saves lives?

This document is available somewhere, somehow, without the names protected. Even before the NYT put the PDF online, there was a physical document.

It's possible that someone could get their hands on the physical document, find the names and exact revenge. People who are named in the article may not know about it, or that their name is mentioned.

"Why wouldn't they know their name's mentioned if they were involved?" I can hear the chorus asking.

Maybe they felt their part was small - they held a door open, or kept watch or something - but the paper misreported their part as something larger.

Now there's somewhere they can go, say "Aw, crap, time to disappear." before someone comes by and forcebly disappears them.

(yes, a long shot, but an enjoyable braincercise nonetheless.)
posted by cCranium at 1:27 PM on June 22, 2000

My earlier comments vis a vis Cryptome were fairly uninformed. The risk of being first post and forming an opinion on something in 5 minutes while at work. Blogging has made me intellectually lazy... ;)

Reading the other information that has been posted leads me to believe that the blame for letting this information into the public space lies much earlier down the chain with whoever released the documents in the first place.

On the issue of newsworthiness, if the situation were instead that someone came across these classified documents, the names of the foreign agents involved would not be newsworthy. I strongly agree with snarkout, though, that the CIAs involvement in this affair is newsworthy.

I belive that it all comes down to ethics. I'm rather skeptical, though, if anyone were to suggest that the media these days make their decisions on what to run or not run based on some ethical ideal. They will publis wahtever they think they can get away with. And all it takes is one media outlet to break with ethics and run an unethical, audience-grabbing piece, and the rest have no choice but to follow suit or risk loosing their audience.
posted by Calebos at 2:09 PM on June 22, 2000

Perhaps I'm a stupid bastard, but couldn't the Times have simply removed the names? Like with a Xerox machine and an exacto knife? And then published that?

Or is that too low-tech?
posted by Ezrael at 3:55 PM on June 22, 2000

From what I understand, the Times posted their version of the PDF files on their site somehow.
posted by Calebos at 8:53 PM on June 22, 2000

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